Proteins derived from rattlesnake venom could hold the key to unlocking treatments for several kinds of cancer and other diseases. 

The novel approach represents the type of platform technologies and companies that West Des Moines-based Spotlight Innovation Inc. specializes in cultivating.  

Founded four years ago by West Des Moines entrepreneur Cris Grunewald, Spotlight Innovation is a bioscience firm based on several platform technologies that hold promise for treating cancer and infectious diseases. The company focuses on providing value-added development capability and funding with the goal of achieving rapid new drug approval, Grunewald said. 

Grunewald has been involved in all stages of commercialization of health care intellectual property developed by research institutions, including Emory University and Instituto Butantan in Brazil. His prior experience includes leading corporate development and operations projects and providing decision support for early stage companies. Earlier in his career, he was vice president for real estate acquisitions for a real estate investment firm. 

“We’re able to go into a therapeutic space and identify a drug ‘XYZ’ that does ‘ABC.’ Once we acquire that drug, we go back to the universities (that own the research) and go vertical in that space,” he said. “Then we acquire everything that’s ‘ABC’ that we can find. So I like to call it a poor man’s version of a platform technology.”  

A publicly traded company (OTCQB: STLT) with five employees, Spotlight has about 1,200 investors in 35 states, including more than a dozen repeat investors in Iowa, Grunewald said. The company has raised about $5.5 million in capital. 

In 2014, Spotlight Innovation acquired an Irish company, Celtic Biotech, through a share exchange agreement. The goal: provide for the continued development and eventual marketing of Celtic Biotech’s intellectual property — methods for combining snake venom toxin with chemotherapeutic agents for cancer therapy. 

With Spotlight’s assistance, Celtic Biotech subsequently acquired similar technologies from universities in China and Brazil. One of the related venom derivatives, Cardiotoxin, is an oral therapy for inflammation and chronic kidney disease. 

“What’s fun about this is that Celtic is run by an Irish guy with a Ph.D. in venom,” Grunewald said. “His methodology is to put as many lines in the water as possible. Each one of these drugs is an incredibly large marketplace.” 

From this technology, Spotlight spun off a veterinary drug product — an injectable tumor therapy for dogs — through a separate company called CDT Veterinary Therapeutics Inc. CDT is currently focused on the commercialization of Crotalin, a protein purified from rattlesnake venom.

A third Spotlight company, Memcine Pharmaceuticals, specializes in a drug technology that Grunewald describes as “a cargo-delivery system for the immune system.” Memcine holds exclusive worldwide rights to Immunoplex, a vaccine platform technology developed at the University of Iowa with the potential to be used to create numerous vaccines. 

“It’s a universal adapter to deliver a protein to your immune system so that your immune system reacts to it,” he said. With the technology, Memcine is currently working toward a lung cancer vaccine. 

Grunewald believes that Memcine is about a year away from seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for Immunoplex.  

“I’d like to have a conversation with the FDA in a year,” he said. “I think in a year we’ll have enough data and knowledge. At this point we’re just blocking and tackling here; there’s no mystery here for our scientists.” In other words, they’re not anticipating any huge roadblocks in developing the drug. 

“We continue to perform and to add value for our investors,” Grunewald said. “Slowly but surely we’re going to climb the ladder. … There’s enough technology in the Midwest that I can spend my whole life working on it.”